Monthly Archives: April 2015

POP SONGS, HOT TUNES, WILD BILL DAVISON and the JAZZ GIANTS

It’s not often that I receive a new CD on Monday, play it on Monday and Tuesday, and sit down to write about it on Wednesday, but the new reissue (I know, illogical but true) of a March 1968 session led by Wild Bill Davison, issued on Delmark Records, has inspired me.  The session was originally recorded by John Norris for Sackville Records, and the band — for once — deserved the title, with Wild Bill, cornet; Benny Morton, trombone; Herb Hall, clarinet; Claude Hopkins, piano; Arvell Shaw, string bass; Buzzy Drootin, drums.  

Davison CD

What makes this CD so endearing is not a whole host of rare / previously unissued material — although there is one new performance and one unissued take.  No, it is the band, the music, and the repertoire.

Although Davison was praised by none other than Ruby Braff, who said that the pride of Defiance, Ohio, had “drama,” I found Davison’s appeal limited in his later years.  He passionately got up and played for all he was worth — he never seemed to coast — but his solos were often set-pieces, established in 1947 and played verbatim night after night.  I recall seeing him in New York City in the Seventies, and it was rather like watching a polished stand-up comedian do identical material.  All one could say was, “Well, Bill’s timing tonight is off,” or “He’s on fire tonight!” but he rarely surprised.  But on this disc he seems inspired sufficiently by his colleagues to venture from his time-tested solos, and the result often made me look up and think, “I never heard him play that before,” which, for me, is one of the great pleasures of improvisation.

Herb Hall sounds lovely and liquid; Arvell Shaw is more than reliable.  Claude Hopkins was never captured enough on record, so his particular version of stride — polite but classically perfect — is a delight, in solo and in ensemble.

But this CD is unusually valuable for the opportunity to hear Buzzy Drootin and Benny Morton — players held dear by their colleagues but rarely given any opportunity to lead sessions.  I saw Buzzy in person many times in the early Seventies, and I fear I did not appreciate him sufficiently.  But now, heard afresh, how arresting he sounds!  Yes, there are echoes of Catlett in his four-bar breaks, but he is entirely his own man with his own sound-galaxy and his own way of thinking, as individualistic as Cliff Leeman.  Instantly recognizable, always propulsive, ever engaged.  And Benny Morton, who recorded with a wide range of players and singers over a half-century (appearing live with Louis, Bird, and Benny Carter!) is in peerless form, his eloquent phrasing, his yearning tone, a great boon.  Sadly, Morton, a terribly modest man, doesn’t have a solo feature (which might have been WITHOUT A SONG).

The CD isn’t perfect.  A few of the solo features sound overdone and the band is, for me, a little too cleanly miked (each instrument rings through, as if there were six separate tracks rather than one — the perils of modern recording and the horror of “leakage”), but it is a rewarding hour-plus.

And it made me think, which is always an enjoyable unexpected benefit — about the repertoire.  Consider this list: STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE / DARDANELLA / BLACK AND BLUE (two takes) / I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU / I FOUND A NEW BABY / BLUE AGAIN / I SURRENDER, DEAR / YESTERDAYS / THEM THERE EYES / THREE LITTLE WORDS.  What struck me about that assortment is that most of the band’s choices were “popular songs” known to the larger audience rather than “jazz favorites” known only to the cognoscenti.

Repertoire in jazz has often served artists as ways to define themselves and their allegiances.  If you are a young singer or player, and you offer a performance (or a CD) of your original compositions, you are in effect saying, “Take me seriously as a composer; I have ideas and feelings to offer you that aren’t Cole Porter, Shelton Brooks, or Ornette Coleman.”

Some players and singers use repertoire as loving homage: Bix Beiderbecke played AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL because his heroes, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, had written and recorded it; Eddie Condon and his friends played the song because it was a good one but also as a loving bow to Bix; players in this century offer it as an extension of the Condon tradition.  In any jazz club or festival, one can hear people playing the music of Louis, Bird, Hawkins, or a hundred others.  Even if one is playing the blues or a song built on familiar changes, the choice of the melodic line superimposed on top says, “Here’s to Don Byas.  Here’s to Roy Eldridge,” and so on.

But this CD reminds me of something Davison told an interviewer.  When he came to New York City in 1943, he was asked by Commodore Records’ saintly founder Milt Gabler to make 12″ 78s of “classic jazz tunes,” for instance PANAMA, THAT’S A PLENTY, and more.  Davison remembered that these songs were not what he was used to playing — for audiences that had come to hear jazz — in Chicago and Milwaukee, but they had played popular songs of the day. And when I heard him in New York, he was most likely to play AS LONG AS I LIVE, SUNDAY, or THEM THERE EYES.  And no one, sitting in the audience, demanded their money back because he wasn’t playing “authentic” jazz.

What the moral of all this is I can’t say.  Perhaps it’s only that I would like to hear Mainstream / traditional ensembles remember the treasures of popular song. There are worlds to be explored beyond the same two dozen favorites — favorites often chosen as markers of ideology / regional or stylistic pride (BIG BEAR STOMP and RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE).  I’d love to hear such bands play THERE’S A SMALL HOTEL, YOU CALL IT MADNESS, or WHERE THE BLUE OF THE NIGHT MEETS THE GOLD OF THE DAY.

I offer musical evidence:

Wild Bill paying tribute to Louis at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival by playing THEM THERE EYES, supported by Dave McKenna, Larry Ridley, Oliver Jackson (there is an unsubtle edit in the film, probably removing a Ridley solo, alas) with even more beautiful — although subtle — backing from Ray Nance, Bobby Hackett, Benny Morton, and Tyree Glenn.  “Indecent exposure” for sure.

May your happiness increase!

MARTY NAPOLEON (1921-2015)

Pianist, singer, composer Marty Napoleon “made the transition” from this earthly world to another one on Monday night, April 27.  His dear friend Geri Goldman Reichgut told me that on his last night on the planet he ate some dessert and listened to music: the signs of what my Irish friends call “a beautiful death.”

I can’t find it in my heart to be too mournful about Marty’s moving out of this earthly realm.  It seems to me that the New Orleanians have the right idea: cry a little at the birth, because that spirit taking corporeal form might have some bumps in this life, and rejoice at the death, because the spirit is free — to ramble the cosmos in the company of other spirits.

I was in conversation with the wonderful pianist Mike Lipskin last night — we sat on a bench in Greenwich Village and lamented that fewer people are playing particular kinds of the music we both love . . . and we both envisioned a future where it might not even be performed.  But I said fervently, “The MUSIC will always be here,” and I believe that.

It is true in Marty’s case as well.  And as a tribute to the man and his spirit, I offer some tangible immortal evidence here and here.

And a closing story.  One of my heroes is the writer William Maxwell, also no longer around in his earthly shape.  Late in his life, he began taking piano lessons and working his way through some simple classical pieces.  I think this gave him great pleasure but was also frustrating — in the way making music is even more difficult for those who have spent their lives appreciating the superb performances of others.  In his final year, a dear friend said to him, “Bill, in the life to come you will be able to play the piano with ease, won’t you?”  And he replied, “In the next life I will not be making music.  I will be music.”

And he is.  As is Marty.

May your happiness increase.

DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET: TAL RONEN’S HOLY MOLY at LITTLE BRANCH, APRIL 13, 2015 (ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, JAY RATTMAN)

Here is what you need to know about the four black — or blank — rectangles that follow, blazing with gorgeous sounds in near-complete darkness.  All of this is the ongoing creation of the deeply inspired Tal Ronen (string bass, composer, instant arranger) and his friends Rossano Sportiello (piano), Jay Rattman (clarinet) — captured at Little Branch, on lower Seventh Avenue South in New York City, April 13, 2015.

JUST IN TIME:

I’M PUTTING ALL MY EGGS IN ONE BASKET:

AVALON:

‘S’WONDERFUL:

You don’t need eyes to see, only ears to hear, when the music is so fine.

May your happiness increase!

“YOURS SINCERELY”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 28, 2014)

In this era of all things made insubstantial, many of us think of communication as somehow bodiless: the tinny voice coming out of the cellphone, the text, the email, the Facebook message.  But there’s still mail, and even if you haven’t gotten a handwritten letter or card in years, perhaps you can remember the thrill of going to the mailbox and getting a surprise, a delight, something that made you very happy — whether you opened the envelope right there or waited until you got inside your home.  (The endorphin rush that one gets when someone you want to hear from has sent you an email is this century’s equivalent, but it isn’t the same as holding an envelope in your hands.)

ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU focuses on someone waiting for that letter, for the Loved One to drop a line of sweet affection.  Here it’s played and sung magnificently at the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest by Ray Skjelbred, piano /vocal; Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums:

Dear Ray, those piano lessons weren’t wasted.  We bless your parents.

May your happiness increase!

“THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME”: BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE HONOR JOHNNY MERCER at MEZZROW (April 14, 2015)

THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME was written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer for the 1941 film BLUES IN THE NIGHT.  It’s a haunting song — its melody like a wistful prayer, its lyrics mixing realistic sorrow and rueful imaginings.  For me, the sorrow in observing the present outweighs the hopefulness of “what might be,” but I hear the singer bravely traversing the landscape of sad fact and wisps of happier possibility.  Mercer’s lyrics stand as a modern poem, and I was surprised to learn that he was not pleased with them:

It’s one of Harold’s nicest tunes. It’s kind of a poor lyric, I think. Built on the thing about “the drink’s on me.” I think it’s too flip for that melody. I think it should be nicer. I was in a hurry I remember the director didn’t like it. I could have improved it, too. I really wish I had. But, you know, we had a lot of songs to get out in a short amount of time, and we had another picture to do. (The source is a BBC interview, excerpted in Gene Lees’ biography of Mercer, PORTRAIT OF JOHNNY, 142).

The unpredictably brilliant Alec Wilder doesn’t even mention the song in his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG.

I think this song so beautifully, perhaps painfully encapsulates the simultaneous feelings: “We’ve had something deep.  It no longer exists, and it cannot.  But I would like to imagine a place in time where it could, even as I know that dream is tormenting by its elusiveness.”  So much is said yet so much is unsayable.

See if you don’t agree while considering this quietly rich performance by Barbara Rosene and Ehud Asherie — at Mezzrow on April 14, 2015:

I love the careful pacing — neither maudlin nor too optimistic — and the deep sincerity of Barbara’s voice, the sweet unerring support Ehud always gives. The difficult reality in one hand, the wisp of a dream that can’t come true in the other hand.  Such music can see anyone through, even as it delineates sadness and loss.

And here, because we all need to know that joyous love is possible, is another gem from that same evening.

May your happiness increase! 

THE GOOD NEIGHBOUR POLICY

PETE NEIGHBOUR portrait

Pete Neighbour (hence the title) is a wonderful clarinetist, and his new CD, BACK IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, is a consistent delight.

Before you think, “If this fellow is so good, why haven’t I heard of him before?” put that thought to rest.  You have.  Here. And you can click here to hear some sound samples from this new CD and to learn more about this session. For those who feel disinclined to click, here are the details of the sixty-four minutes and seven seconds.  The compositions are I WANT TO BE HAPPY / BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS / I MAY BE WRONG / YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG / OPUS ONE / COME SUNDAY / LIZA / WHAT WILL I TELL MY HEART? / TEACH ME TONIGHT / WILLOW WEEP FOR ME / A FOGGY DAY / AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  (I would start my listening session with BOULEVARD, which is a feathery, pensive masterpiece.)

The disc was recorded in London in September 2014; Pete appears with Jim Mullen, guitar; David Newton, piano; Nat Steele, vibraphone; Andrew Cleyndert, bass; Tom Gordon, drums.  Louise Cookman makes a guest vocal appearance on YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG and WHAT WILL I TELL MY HEART?

Aside from a few rousers, the whole CD is carried off as a series of medium / medium-fast rhythm performances, where the band superbly rocks, quietly and persuasively.  Pete himself is a great lyrical player — hear his touching COME SUNDAY, which has a dear pulse but retains its hymnlike aspect.  And he resolutely chooses to sound like himself, although he is clearly inspired by Benny and Buddy — with a sidelong glance at Ken.  His approach, although he has technique to make any clarinetist consider bringing the instrument in for a trade, is not in rapid-fire flurries of notes.  Rather, Pete (in the best heroic way) constructs logical long-limbed phrases and sweet solos out of those phrases, everything fitting together in a way that sounds fully improvised but is also compositionally satisfying.  And the tempos chosen caress the songs rather than attacking the hearer. The rest of the band is quite wonderful, and each number unfolds in its own fashion without ever being predictable.  The session has the gentle exploratory air of a late Ruby Braff recording, as the band continually changes shape into duos and trios — with echoes of Dave McKenna and Ellis Larkins in the duets incorporating Newton’s piano. Louise Cookman, whom I’d not heard before, is a wonder: gently memorable on her two guest appearances.

For more about Pete, here is his Facebook page.

This very well-produced and reassuring CD is available through the usual sources, but here is an easy place to purchase one.  Or several, from the best musical Neighbour.

May your happiness increase!

THE MUSIC SPEAKS FOR ITSELF: THE WEST TEXAS JAZZ PARTY (May 14-17, 2015)

I could write a long piece on the history of the West Texas Jazz Party — in Odessa, Texas — which in 2016 will celebrate its fiftieth year.  This, for those keeping count, makes it the longest-running jazz party in existence.  I could list the names of the luminaries who played, say, in 1980 — Red Norvo, John Best, Lou Stein, Carl Fontana, Kenny Davern, George Masso, Herb Ellis, Buddy Tate, Flip Phillips, Dave McKenna, Milt Hinton, Gus Johnson, PeeWee Erwin, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Rosengarden, John Bunch, Buddy Tate, and the still-vibrant Ed Polcer, Bucky Pizzarelli, Michael Moore, Bob Wilber.

The West Texas Jazz Society site can be found here — quite informative.

But I think it is more important to offer the evidence: the music made at this party, which is superb Mainstream jazz.  Here are several videos from the 2013 WTJP — they will unfold in sequence if you allow them to — featuring Ken Peplowski, Ehud Asherie, Ed Metz, Joel Forbes, Chuck Redd, Randy Sandke, and John Allred:

And the musicians themselves speak sweetly about the pleasure of attending the party and playing there (Ken, Chuck Redd, Dan Barrett, Bucky):

The superb videos — both music and interview — are the work of David Leonnig, who’s also helped inform me about the Party.

This year’s party will take place May 14-17, at the MCM Eleganté Hotel
in Odessa, Texas and the musicians are:

Piano: Johnny Varro, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello
Bass: Joel Forbes. Frank Tate, Nicki Parrott (vocals)
Drums: Chuck Redd (vibes), Tony Tedesco, Butch Miles
Trumpet: Ed Polcer, Warren Vache, Randy Sandke
Trombone: Dan Barrett, John Allred
Reeds: Ken Peplowski, Scott Robinson, Allan Vache
Guitar: Bucky Pizzarelli, Ed Laub (vocals)
Vocals: Rebecca Kilgore

The West Texas Jazz Party is sponsored in part by:

• The Texas Commission for the Arts
• Odessa Council for the Arts and Humanities
• The Rea Charitable Trust

Patron Tickets: $200: Reserved Seating for all performances and Saturday Brunch.

General Admission: Each performance $50 • Brunch $50

For Hotel Reservations, call 432-368-5885 and ask tor the Jazz Rate of $129.00. For Jazz Party or Brunch Reservations, call 432-552-8962. The WTJP now is accepting credit cards or make a check payable to: West Texas Jazz Society • P.O. Box 10832 • Midland, Texas 79702.

It looks as if a good time will be had by all. For the forty-ninth consecutive year!

May your happiness increase!